Every year, at least one intercontinental ballistic missile is launched thousands of miles from a United States submarine to an instrumented area in the ocean. The purpose of this is to test the reliability of the complete system, including the accuracy of its independently-targeted dummy warheads. Also tested at these times is the integrity of the chain of command authorizing the launch.
Does the crew know they are launching a pre-planned dummy weapon? I hope and expect that the sub’s captain would know, but I’m not actually sure. It probably doesn’t matter much. This is what they train for. The missile(s) will be launched within mere minutes. I’ve been retired too long from the submarine Navy to be up on such policies, and it would be classified anyway. After all, the deterrence of the system depends on instant and unquestioning obedience to the orders of a single person, the president of the United States.
The Constitution requires that a declaration of war be the decision of Congress, a power and responsibility that have not been exercised since the invention of nuclear weapons. That’s partly because the orbital flight of such missiles requires only half an hour and even with specialized satellite sensors, there is no time for speculation or debate, nor politics of any kind. The policy, half a century old now, is called MAD, short for Mutually Assured Destruction. (The other reason a declaration of war is no longer required is technology – no draft call-ups or civilian sacrifice needed.)
An all-out nuclear war would probably end the human species. Not only would we die from blast and radiation, but also from catastrophic effects on the environment. Crops and livestock would die. The ozone layer would be severely damaged, eliminating the radiation protection essential to life. Some say there would be a “nuclear winter.” But with warhead sizes tens and hundreds of times those of WW II, even limited blasts over populated areas would have severe effects because of fallout.
With these thoughts in mind, and feeling a little insecure about politics lately, I searched and found a fascinating story from 6 years ago, a remarkable story about an Air Force officer who had a simple question about nukes and what happened to him. It seems even more relevant to me now than it would have been in 2011. What do you think?
And, by the way, just what does it mean when they say, tactical nuclear weapons?